Justice secretary Jack Straw has pledged to take a ‘good look’ at a 160-year-old legal precedent that allows people to sue publishers for online libel without any time limit.
Appearing at the Press Gazette media law conference in London today, Straw was asked in the question-and-answer session by News International legal manager Alastair Brett why the Government had yet to take any action on the archaic “Duke of Brunswick” rule.
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The 1849 judgment, in favour of the German duke, effectively means that every time a newspaper’s online archive is accessed gives rise to a fresh case for libel action.
He successfully sued a newsagent for libel after he discovered it stocked a 19-year-old edition of the Weekly Dispatch containing allegations about him.
Brett said the rule presented a great risk to newspapers that owned extensive online archives. The Times’s archive dates back as far as 1785.
“It may be years after the hard copy first came out, a new right of action accrues. There is effectively no limitation period on newspaper archives,” Brett said.
“I had the other day the case of a chap who had been very heavily criticised back in 2004. When you Googled his name, up came a piece in the Times from October 2004. And he said: new publication, I’m going to sue you.
“Both our journalists had left, we had no notes. I had absolutely no alternative but to take it down when it should be a historical record of what was said about that man in 2004.”
Brett added: “Really the time must have come. This is really a case that’s been going on and on and on. When will the government do something?” he asked.
Straw told Brett: “I will now have a good look at this.”
Justice minister Bridget Prentice is expected to produce a consultation paper on defamation and the internet later this month.
Straw said it was not acceptable that excessive costs should be charged in no-win no-fee libel cases where the damages awarded are small – especially at a time when regional newspapers are suffering financially.
“There’s an issue here of proportionality and of looking very carefully at the way in which the CFA system has operated and whether it’s leading to unjust conclusions when newspapers are being forced to settle,” he said.
“Regional newspapers are irreplaceable. I don’t believe that the role that they play in communities can be replaced by the web – they can be complemented by the web but they can’t be replaced.”
The Ministry of Justice launched a review last summer into whether CFAs were “still operating in the best interests of giving people access to justice”.
Press Gazette has been campaigning for a fairer system for news organisations faced with excessive success fees which can deter them from fighting legitmate stories in the public interest.
Although CFAs were intended to help ordinary people gain access to justice there is concern at their frequent use by wealthy celebrities.
Straw also defended proposals to bar the press and the public from certain inquests on national security grounds.
“There’s bound to be a degree of suspicion,” he said. “I think there’s a feeling among some commentators that every restriction of information must be to disguise some conspiracy, but this is nonsense.
“Worse still is the corrosive untruth that what the Government is seeking to build is some kind of Big Brother society.”
Straw said the number of cases that would be excluded under the proposed coroners and justice bill would be “a handful – one or two a year”.
“The information that is sought to be protected is nothing to do with the embarassment of Government,” Straw added.
“It’s everything to do with making sure that some innocent individuals are not at risk of being injured or killed.”
He concluded: “Far from retreating into a culture of secrecy what we have sought to do is reveal the inner workings of government more than ever before.
“Self-evidently although there will continue to be a dificult and uncosy relationship between politicans and the media, a free and active press is essential if there is to be that openness and continual monitoring of what ministers get up to.”